Richard Stallman’s cloud computing nonsense

Commenting on the Richard Stallman’s comment on cloud computing:

“One reason you should not use web applications to do your computing is that you lose control,” he said. “It’s just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else’s web server, you’re defenceless. You’re putty in the hands of whoever developed that software.”

Nonsense, the minute I find a better alternative to Gmail I can move all my data there, how exactly am I defenseless?

“It’s stupidity. It’s worse than stupidity: it’s a marketing hype campaign,”

Based on what? Your fallacious arguments?

First of all he is generalizing cloud computing into the usual services, like Gmail. There are other kinds of cloud computing, like OpenID, if I use I would be in his simplistic “locked state”, but I can setup my own server with my own OpenID provider, and link them together. I’m in complete control.

Same with, a twitter-like open “service”. And there’s also the DataPortability movement that aims to put people in control of their data.

To me his position is obvious: everyone should stop using anything that is not FSF blessed and wait until we come up with the only sane alternative, otherwise you are stupid. Perhaps we should stop being productive, stop using Linux and wait for Hurd… I’ll better just ignore him.

Other interesting responses:

29 thoughts on “Richard Stallman’s cloud computing nonsense

  1. dvd October 6, 2008 / 21:35

    yeap. i was thinking the same thing when I read that story. If the day comes that there is a better mail for me than gmail, I will change my mail no matter what.
    Maybe he is just afraid that he is not part of the cloud.


  2. Frederir October 9, 2008 / 00:31

    you can move from gmail but where is the proof your data moved along with you ?


  3. FelipeC October 11, 2008 / 00:04

    Frederir: what? who needs a proof?


  4. John Stout October 12, 2008 / 18:39

    Well, it would be nice to know that I can transfer my thousands of emails and hundreds of contacts from GMail BEFORE I can do it.


  5. John Stout October 12, 2008 / 18:45

    Sorry, that should have read … BEFORE I HAVE to do it.

    Just had a quick look and I can’t see an EXPORT to file option anywhere on GMAIL. If I have to type in my email messages/contacts then I’m not going to move, i.e., I’m locked in.


  6. FelipeC October 12, 2008 / 19:29

    John Stout: do you know what is POP mail? You can export all your mails with that.

    And for the contacts there’s an ‘export’ option right there. You have different formats to choose and of course there is the Google API.

    What else do you want?


  7. Brian October 13, 2008 / 22:14

    “Based on what? Your fallacious arguments?”

    There is no logical fallacy in Stallman’s statements. You simply do not agree with his assessment. Stallman is an open source zealot. To Stallman, a web application is no different than any other proprietary program for which you do not have access to the source code, but with the extra restriction that you also do not have access to your data (unless it has been explicitly programmed to give you a “download option” in some way). However, it is inherent to the system of having software locally installed that your data is also locally available. Accordingly, it is inherent to the system of a remote application that your data is held remotely. Thus you are at the “mercy” of the remote host to provide you a way to retrieve your data. It is possible, no matter how unlikely, that the remote host could change it’s policy at any time with respect to data availability.

    A web app that provides you a way to download your data is really nothing short of a benevolent dictator. Stallman is diametrically opposed to this and the only mistake you have made is not in disagreeing with him, but rather the same mistake everyone else makes: getting caught up in Stallman’s zealous rhetoric and advocacy.

    In short, he has a valid point. You apparently do not agree. It does NOT mean your stupid. Stallman is just being childish. However, having said that, with respect to web apps, I happen to agree with his logic for the reasons I’ve outlined.


  8. FelipeC October 13, 2008 / 23:10

    Brian: How exactly do cloud services like OpenID fit in that view?

    I can setup my own server, with an OpenID provider, implemented by myself, completely open source. I own the data, I own the source code, and so on.

    Same applies to, and other services, where you can choose a ‘locked’ provider, but you can have your own, and actually link them.

    His argument is fallacious because he is generalizing, he isn’t considering these kinds of services.


  9. Brian October 14, 2008 / 02:08

    FelipeC: Sure. You can certainly do that, and if so, it will be as you say. If I write my own software, I too will have access to all my data and code. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not Stallman’s point. He’s not talking about you as developing your own software so much as he’s talking about having his freedom limited as a user of software developed by others (particularly big “evil” corporations).

    Web apps aren’t going away anymore than open source software would ever replace closed source software. For people that don’t care where there data is as long as it can solve their problems, why not use the connivence of web apps. It’s easy and fun.

    But for those of use who don’t want our data on other people’s servers (particularly big “evil” corporations), or don’t want our usage habits tracked and traced with cookies and data-mines, or want to select which software we use (such as Thunderbird instead of Gmail) we will stick to open source solutions that keep our data private and in an open format should we chose another software solution at a later time.

    These are just two different schools of thought. Web apps are relatively new and Stallman is just warning those of us who value the principals of open source that web apps may pose a danger to those ideals.

    But it is no more fair to call one “nonsense” anymore that it is to call the other “stupid.”


  10. FelipeC October 14, 2008 / 11:08

    Brian: he is talking about cloud computing in general, and he himself accepts that he doesn’t understand it, and even without understand it, calls people who use it stupid.

    You can assume good faith in his words, and spin them, but I think he meant what he said. He just doesn’t get it, and doesn’t even want to, and if he doesn’t get it, it must be evil.


  11. Jon October 14, 2008 / 22:40

    It’s easy to get seduced by a service like gmail. I agree that it’s a great webmail client (clearly the best in my opinion). However, services like gmail and many like it (facebook, linkedin etc) does come with a price, and that is privacy.

    No one can argue that. Neither can anyone have a clue what these companies will do with their (your) data. What happens if they get acquired? What happens when big brother knocks on their door (That we already know from several examples). What happens if they get extorted or employees get bribed?

    There are basically only two answers to that, either doing like the struts, dig your head into the sand and say “I have nothing to hide”, or get worried that large companies get more and more data about us all.


  12. FelipeC October 18, 2008 / 01:30

    Again, cloud computing != Gmail. If you want to avoid the generalization fallacy you need to think about OpenID.

    If you focus only on traditional services, like Gmail, the criticism can stand. But even in that case, what would be the option? All the other services are way behind what Gmail provides. So even if there’s a very remote possibility of loosing control of the data, the benefits clearly outweighs it.


  13. MonkeeSage October 19, 2008 / 07:48

    @Brian & Jon:

    When you run openSuSe or Fedora or Ubuntu or Debian or just about any other binary-based Open Source, Free Software OS, you have the same “problems” as webapps:

    1.) You don’t immediately have the source. Sure, you can download a source rpm / spec file and tarball or a dsc file and tarball, and build the packages yourself. But with open source webapps you can do the same thing (i.e., the issue is open source and trust, not webapps per se). And honestly, how often do you actually build packages from source because you’re worried that some shadowy figures are lurking in the darkness controlling your computer (never?). It’s called a web of trust: you trust the distro maintainers to publish good binary packages; you trust the server admins hosting and mirroring those packages and so on. The same goes for webapps: you’re only at the mercy of others insofar as you don’t adhere to the circle of trust or someone violates that trust–99.99999% of the time you’re not at anyone’s mercy.

    2.) Your data could just as easily be locked out of any free, open source app tomorrow. Mozilla could change their EULA and Mozilla License tomorrow, and break their old license, and put a lock on all your stored passwords unless you pay them $5 for a proprietary USB key to unlock them, and then withhold the source for the new module. You’d be sunk. But then people would sue them, and win, and you’d get all your stored information back anyhow. And this is exactly what would happen if Google suddenly broke their EULA and stopped letting you access your data through POP3 / IMAP. As long as you have a license agreement that guarantees your right to your data, webapps are just like normal apps.


  14. MonkeeSage October 19, 2008 / 07:58

    Ps. Think of it like this: Say I buy a shovel to plant flowers in my yard. I’m in control of where to dig the holes and what flowers to put in them. But if I hire somebody else, then I’m at their mercy. Maybe they won’t dig the holes in the right spot (or at all), maybe they will try to extort money from me before they dig any holes, and maybe they will put the flowers they like in the holes rather than the ones I want. But if I had a detailed contract when I hired them, stating that I will be able to inspect the shovel and the yard at any time I wish, and that they will do the work for a fixed price and only do the work I instruct them to do–then in that case, I’ve not given up any freedom or control over doing the job myself. And since that person specializes in gardening, but I kill every plant I touch, it is actually more beneficial to hire them to do the work than to do it myself.


  15. Brian October 22, 2008 / 19:23

    FelipeC: Here is an interesting article from the NY Times on how quickly and easily you can loose access to your data:

    Anwyay, my intention was not to attack “cloud-computing”, (being a PHP/SQL programmer I think it’s geeky neat), but rather to say I understand where Stallman is coming from even though I think he’s a little “over the edge”.

    But I don’t understand why you keep calling on OpenID. Near as I can tell all OpenID does is create for a centralized authentication service. Am I missing something? How is a centralized (albeit open) login system key to making cloud-computing “the bomb”?

    MonkeeSage: I failed with a parse error reading your nonsense.


  16. FelipeC October 22, 2008 / 22:31

    Brian: hmm, you should first read what is OpenID in order to understand my point. Google can help:

    OpenID is a shared identity service, which allows Internet users to log on to many different web sites using a single digital identity, single sign-on, eliminating the need for a different user name and password for each site. OpenID is a decentralized, free and open standard that lets users control the amount of personal information they provide.


  17. Michael October 23, 2008 / 10:50

    I agree with RMS. I do use gmail, but all my mail is popped and stored on MY imap server which I control. For the very reasons RMS specifies.

    I do not want my mail sitting on a server where someone else can permission for the data to be read without my knowing, I do not want my mail sitting on a server where the the brain dead system administrators may have made things easy to socially engineer a compromise (IE Palin and her Yahoo! Mail)

    I want complete control of my data and my applications. And no, I don’t have to wait for hurd to do that, I can do that right now with Linux and the wealth of free software already out there now.


  18. MonkeeSage October 28, 2008 / 18:53


    NP. My post was written in a DSL that’s aimed at folks who Know What They’re Doing(TM). For everyone else, you can just ignore it (and wait patiently for your OS vendor to release the next version / bugfix of FireFox).


  19. MonkeeSage October 29, 2008 / 17:02

    Pss. I don’t personally think that web services are “the bomb”–in fact, I argued that they are the exact same thing as local apps–the only difference generally being in the storage media and access methods (though even that isn’t necessarily so, as with thin clients or kiosks). The same concerns over the availability of source and circle of trust apply in both cases, and those are the only things that really matter in the long run (and the first is more of a philosophical / ethical concern than a pragmatic one).

    For example, take a service like I could pay them to store my files (which I don’t, BTW–this is just an example), or I could just as easily invest in a flash drive and carry it around with me. In the former case, assuming that they have an explicit EULA that spells out my rights to my data (and theirs!), I’ve not sacrificed any freedom or security by using their service.

    Now granted, they could break the EULA and try to extort money from me and hold my data “hostage”–but that’s about as likely as a rogue packager for gvfs on openSuSe slipping in a binary blob that encrypts my USB stick on mount and then tries to extort money for the key to decrypt it. It’s all about trust–and, markedly, not about the storage media or content delivery systems.


  20. MonkeeSage October 29, 2008 / 17:09

    Psss. Every time you use an ATM card at the grocery store, you’re using a “cloud computing” web service (and a closed source one at that)–the mag stripe reader has to dial in to the bank’s trunk and authenticate the PIN. The storage media is remote, the service is served to consumers via “cloud computing,” and the software is (in all likelihood) in-house, closed source software developed for the bank. But I’ve yet to see anyone fretting that evil capitalists are hiding in the wings, controlling their bank transactions, heh. Go figure.


  21. MonkeeSage December 7, 2008 / 04:18

    Just to further stress the point, here is a rather salient quote from Ken Thompson:

    “You can’t trust code that you did not totally create yourself. (Especially code from companies that employ people like me.) No amount of source-level verification or scrutiny will protect you from using untrusted code.”

    That is to say: pragmatically speaking, trust is the last word in the matter. Sure, open source theoretically offers a layer of insulation (and I’m certainly happy that I can peruse the source and hack on any FOSS software I please–as I often do), but at the end of the day, you’re running some bit of software, somewhere, that you didn’t write 100% yourself or code audit with a fine-grained comb. FOSS is great, but the point really comes down to trust, not the content delivery system or development model.


  22. tom June 17, 2009 / 22:22

    I don’t know why people are making a campaign out of paying for computing as a service. If it’s cheaper, people and companies will do it. If it’s not, they won’t. I don’t think the hype makes any difference.

    It certainly wouldn’t make sense for an individual person who has access to free software to pay for the same services, which will be slower over a network and put them at the mercy of their provider.

    Would you pay for electric service if there was free technology available to provide you with the energy you need? NO.

    So all cloud computing is is advertising hype for people who want to sell computing services to companies. For individuals to get caught up in that hype is silly.


  23. FelipeC June 18, 2009 / 00:54

    @tom who is talking about paying? I use Gmail because it’s the best tool that fits my needs, what’s wrong with that?


  24. MonkeeSage June 24, 2009 / 09:13


    Look at RackSpace’s cloud-computing division, Mosso Mosso, and tell mr what’s wrong with that business model…I’m pretty sure you’ll be hard-pressed to find vary many faults.


  25. Bunny June 1, 2010 / 23:10

    you guys don;t get his point. He is not worried about freaking emails, but about personal privacy. Having emails in microsoft , google, yahoo, etc servers is one thing, but having all your files in the cloud is another thing. In the future you won;t be able to share stuff “bittorrent stuff, limewire, etc” that you won’t have a chance to do so, for they will have total control on what you do. Moving your files to the cloud and your personal information is just the first step. What companies such as google, vmware, microsoft, etc are gonna make you do in the future is to have your whole operating system in the cloud, so that you don’t have control on what you do in it.

    I don;t think companies such as google, microsoft ,etc want to do that, but they are forced to do that by goverments (U.S.) just imagine how much federal agencies such as NSA will benefit from having people’s personal files, operating system, etc on the cloud. Do you think they will ask you to let them see your personal files. They won;t have to because of the new laws after 9/11.

    They realized they can control what people do with they computer. Microsoft tried to help them, but still people would find other ways to encrypt data, hide files, etc. They don;t like that, so the best strategy is to have people moving that data to the cloud so that they can have total access on it.

    Likewise, imagine how many jobs cloud computing will take. ITs will loose their job since companies will trust other companies to take care of their virtual computers, their files, databases, etc.

    Cloud computing is just a way to have more control on what we do in our electronic devices not only computers. I am OK with that as long as they let me have access to their stuff as well. I will let them take a look at my files as long as they let me take a look at theirs. Why can the goverment violate my privacy, but I can’t violate theirs????


  26. FelipeC August 5, 2010 / 14:13

    @Bunny You are wrong. RMS was clear on his criticism: “you loose control”. If you use evil services such as Facebook, yes, you loose control, but if you use Gmail, you don’t. I can export all my mail and contacts from Gmail; I’m in full control.


  27. Georgi Georgiev - hip0 February 12, 2012 / 14:55

    I think stallman is right at many points. Sometimes idea might sound “radical” but he is right as he thinks from the perspective of freedom.
    Cloud computing is a hype fr sure. What is the different between a cluster and a cloud ? isn’t it the same. The concept of cloud computing is not any different from any old fashioned VMS based cluster. Correct me if I’m mistaken?


  28. FelipeC February 12, 2012 / 22:39

    +Georgi Georgiev

    According to Stallman Gmail is part of “the cloud”. In an interview he mentioned that he basically doesn’t use X, probably uses a text-based web browser, and rarely connects to the Internet. I don’t think he is an expert on the topic, he just doesn’t know what he is talking about.


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